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Innovative parking lot drives Kellogg student into top spots in three biz plan competitions

By Deborah Leigh Wood

4/1/2005 - Before enrolling in the Kellogg School 's New Venture Formation class last fall, Cooper Marcus '05 knew he had a good idea for a business: a firm that would manage innovative, customized, automated-parking facilities. His instructor, Kellogg Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship Barry Merkin, thought so too.

So did judges at three recent national competitions. The Northwest Venture Championships, held April 9 at Boise State University, awarded Marcus and his teammate Brandon Bidlack '05 first prize, $10,000 and the opportunity to participate in the Global MOOT CORP. 2005 Competition. Called "The Super Bowl of World Business Plan Competition," MOOT CORP. is to be held May 4-7 at the University of Texas at Austin, which originated the event in 1984. Since then, the competition has grown in prestige and now boasts the “largest guaranteed prize of any student contest in the world,” according to the university’s Web site.

On April 2, the 2005 Rice University Business Plan Competition in Houston awarded Marcus and Bidlack second place and $15,000. On March 12, the 2005 USF (University of San Francisco) International Business Plan Competition awarded Marcus second place and $3,000.

Marcus describes his business — working name Spark Parking — as an automated-parking facility operator that leverages technology to “revolutionize” the management of parking lots and garages. Customers drive onto the lot, then use their mobile phones to leave a message saying which numbered space they're in. A patent-pending wireless sensor detects how long a customer has occupied the space and then charges their credit card accordingly.

A self-described “lifelong entrepreneur,” Marcus says his first business experience was in grade school, selling parking spaces in his mother’s driveway to football fans attending games at the nearby University of California-Berkeley. In college he started a student-run textbook co-op to compete with one run by his school, the University of California-Santa Cruz. After graduation Marcus had a number of businesses, including a condiments company that he and a friend sold about two years ago.

After graduating from the Kellogg School, Marcus says he will turn his plan into an actual business in San Francisco, his hometown, and then expand the company into other western states. He says his lots will be located near downtowns and will accommodate up to 150 vehicles.

Spark Parking, Marcus says, has everything a customer could want: “Quick transactions, excellent security and great pricing,” which will make his company “the first recognized brand in urban parking.”

Branding of urban parking has been undifferentiated, he says. “There are lots of operators, but they're all virtually the same. The challenge was to create a brand where brands don't exist.”

In addition to Bidlack, who might become his business partner, other members of Marcus’ New Venture Formation team were Mike Fu, Javier Nogales, Raquel Rozas and Cherie Yu, all '05. He says they helped shape Spark Parking into a “friendly experience.”

“Often a customer's first interaction with a parking lot is an encounter with a huge warning sign about towing,” Marcus says. “It gets the relationship off on the wrong foot. There's big room for improvement. We wanted to make Spark Parking the kind of place that makes customers feel good coming and going.”